I assume just about every die-hard Cowboys' fan knew a few weeks ago that things were going too smoothly. It was a suspiciously smooth 7 weeks of football for a team that had just thrown aside the New York Giants with ease after a win in Seattle that told the football world that Dallas must be taken seriously. 6-1 was a start that shocked even the most committed apologist and it was nothing but blue skies ahead. Talk of playoff seeding had begun and good times were back again.
Of course, that had to make a lot of people nervous. Especially the experienced football fan that understands that there is almost no such thing as a season without a significant storm or seven. Football is a sport that tests the resolve of every team, and if that team is to do something memorable or remarkable, the way they defeat adversity along the way is generally the theme of that chapter in the history books.
And the storm clouds have certainly arrived in full intensity. Now, a stretch of games that included 3 straight home contests in games where the Cowboys would surely be favored and then an international battle against one of the worst teams in the league now can only be saved with a win in London to put that stretch at 2-2.
Yesterday was one of those games that was certainly affected by the pre game news that Tony Romo was not going to be able to take his normal spot. We must assume that his situation is such that it requires rest and time for a full recovery that will allow him to hopefully be present all the way into January. Part of that is "big picture" thinking that is so difficult this time of year, but if you panic too much and force him onto your urgency timetable, you might risk further issues. That is why I would not be a big proponent of rushing him back onto the field in 7 days time in London, but I realize after yesterday's performance from his old understudy, that will be a tough case to make to any reader, player, or certainly Cowboys' official.
That performance, put in by Brandon Weeden was just not very good. His challenge was to go up against a Arizona Cardinals defense that knew his limitations that were in deep contrast to Tony Romo's skill-set, and to use it against him. Then, the questions might change as the day went on, but Arizona had some very easy ideas that were thrust into action on the first possession of the day and honestly didn't have to deviate as the day went along.
First, they were determined to frustrate the Cowboys running game by showing the Cowboys a 4-3 front on running downs. This consisted of, on most 1st and 2nd downs throughout the day, Calais Campbell (6'8, 300), Dan Williams (6'2, 316), Frostee Rucker (6'3, 280), and Tommy Kelly (6'6, 300). Those 4 would line up right on top of the interior of the Cowboys defensive line from B-Gap to B-Gap. That means that any type of inside zone or running play would require the Cowboys to run without the ability to double team any of their targets. Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Mackenzy Bernadeau would all have to win 1-on-1 battles all day long against guys with similar size and strength and as the numbers would bear out - 7 inside carries for 10 yards - that wasn't happening.
From a Cowboys standpoint, this appears to have really caught them off guard against an Arizona team that is generally a pretty consistent 3-4 team (they will clearly show multiple fronts as the situation dictates), but from Arizona's question of how do we slow Dallas down, make Weeden beat us, and keep them from running 35 minutes and 70 plays, it looked like the answer to every Cardinals' defensive question.
This aggressive interior 4-3 was also complimented by linebackers who were playing tight to the line of scrimmage. Again, on 1st and 2nd down, they were intent on chasing the Cowboys out of the running game by outnumbering the blockers. Even when the Cowboys went to 11 personnel (something that almost always makes opponents switch to nickel defense to keep a LB from having to deal with Cole Beasley), the Cardinals would not budge from their plan unless it was 3rd Down. The Cowboys would either have to run into fronts where they were outnumbered (or at best had 7 on 7) or they would have to throw over that and make the Cardinals compensate.
As you know if you were reading this, that was the early theme, and it put the spotlight on Brandon Weeden. If he had any sort of reputation in Cleveland, it was that he had the tendency to lock onto one particular receiver (Josh Gordon) and force the ball his way again and again. Well, yesterday will not help him shake that reputation in the slightest.
Weeden tried to make some throws that would back the Cardinals off in those situations, but too often, he attempted to trust his arm and fit the ball into a tight space for Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, rather than take what was being presented to him underneath. This is curious, of course, if you were going to predict what a backup QB might do, it would seem that he wouldn't have missed Beasley underneath on numerous 3rd down occasions. But, I think the film will reveal to all involved yesterday that several of those 12 throws to Dez Bryant (2 catches, 2 penalties drawn) were missed opportunities elsewhere where the offense would have been better served to stop forcing the ball to Bryant. This wasn't the Browns offense of 2012 or 2013. This offense has complimentary pieces that can make things happen, but instead, they played right into the Cardinals hands all afternoon.
It didn't start that way, of course. When Carson Palmer threw an interception that the young and promising ball hawk Tyler Patmon - yet another Oklahoma State Cowboy on this roster - returned for a touchdown, it appeared that the recipe for the Cowboys success had a real chance to work. Patmon and the defense were not world beaters on this day, but they were going to have to make a few stops and that defensive touchdown was just what they needed. What really hurt the defense for the 2nd week in a row was the inability to win on those crucial 3rd down/red zone "situational football" moments. Palmer and the Cardinals converted a season-high 9 3rd Downs against this defense (St Louis had the previous high with 8, but the season average was about 5) and the red zone efficiency for Arizona was a lethal 4 for 4. In just about any game at any time, if one team goes 4 for 4 in the red zone and the opponent goes 1 for 3, you are going to have pretty strong clarity on the outcome of the game. The Cowboys defense had to force a Field Goal on one or two of those opportunities, and were unable to do so.
But, there the game sat. 14-10 was the score with 4:34 in the 2nd Quarter when the Cardinals used a stack to free up seldom-used Jaron Brown for a slant in front of Brandcon Carr and the score didn't move again for most of the afternoon. This, despite the Cowboys having numerous opportunities deep in Arizona territory that ended in frustration with a blocked field goal at the end of the 1st half followed by a red zone interception where Weeden missed Witten to the inside and had the ball picked off by Tyrann Mathieu. Put 3 points up on both of those opportunities and the Cowboys are leading in the 4th Quarter, but they left with nothing on both occasions and therefore needed another stop from the defense.
It happened as Rod Marinelli rallied his troops to make 3 big plays in a row. First, an end around to John Brown was sniffed out for a 3-yard loss by Anthony Hitchens. Then, a quick screen to Larry Fitzgerald was stopped by Hitchens and George Selvie after a poor throw. Now, it is 3rd and 14, and the pass rush needed to step up. And step up they did, as a stunt by Tyrone Crawford took out the entire guard-center-guard group of the Cardinals and Henry Melton ran free to meet Anthony Spencer at Palmer. Huge sack and a potential major turning point in the game.
The ensuing punt was Dwayne Harris' opportunity, and he also chipped into get the Cowboys possession of the ball at the Arizona 43. Short field and the Cowboys are very much in this game with 11:00 to play and the ball on the Cardinals side of the 50. This was where they had to show all of their cards to get points.
Murray for a tough 2 yards on 1st down, followed by a pass on 2nd and 8 where Weeden again was rocked as he threw the ball. The Cardinals had their 4-3 in chasing the Cowboys out of the run there and then dropped Campbell leaving Travis Frederick with nothing to do, but to his right the Cowboys were outnumbered and Frostee Rucker shot the B-gap between Martin and Jermey Parnell to get to Weeden untouched.
Now, it is 3rd and 8 again - something the Cowboys are not equipped to handle without Romo - and the Cardinals are ready to bring pressure. Dallas decides to empty out the backfield with S11-empty, and Weeden knows he is going to have to read and throw quickly. He rolls right and hits Witten near the sticks on a pivot route, but there is Mathieu again to get Witten down after 7 yards, leaving a 4th and 1.
Here it is. The play of the game. 4th and 1 from the Cardinals 34 yard-line where the game hangs in the balance. A field goal from here cuts the lead to 1 point with almost 10 minutes to play, but everyone wanted to see the Cowboys prove that they could get 1 yard on the ground. Especially, if, in fact, this is their new identity and the way they will shove the NFL out of their way on the way to the playoffs. This is how it needs to happen, right?
23-personnel. Murray, a fullback, and 3 tight ends to help the offensive line get that yard. The Cardinals stack their 300-pounders across the line and this shall be power on power. 8 Cowboys lined up on the 34 across from 8 Cardinals.
At the snap, you could see the wall was not going to hold. Giant Calais Campbell got inside Tyron Smith, while Dan Williams shoved Bernadeau back into the ill-advised idea of pulling Martin who just ended up getting in the way of Murray. The play was doomed and so was the outcome. The levees broke on the defense and the Cardinals marched down for the kill-shot. One Weeden interception later and the game was done and dusted at 28-10.
After that, the Cowboys completed a few passes to make things cosmetically better, but at the moment of the Antonio Cromartie interception, Weeden had a day of 11 competions in 23 attempts for 104 yards, and 2 interceptions. That is a QB rating of 24.5 and a yards per attempt of 4.5. Neither would win him a job as a backup QB if that was his audition. It was not close to good enough.
So, those are the details of the storm that has arrived. In 1-week's time, everything went from sunny to rubble and now the team boards a plane for the inconvenient trip to England with the training room full of vital players - Romo, Tyrone Crawford, and Rolando McClain are the first 3 that come to mind, but Ron Leary, Doug Free, and many others are also on the list.
Success is never easy in the NFL. The Cowboys were doing everything right for a stretch there and perhaps the price seemed too easy. Well, now adversity has arrived and the first real gut-check of the season is straight ahead. Romo will surely try to give it a go this week, but plans must be made either way. They must get a win against 1-8 Jacksonville to keep the bye week from being 14 days of chaos.
And for this crucial game, they travel nearly 5,000 miles to Wembley Stadium in London. This should be an interesting week, to say the least.